Pablo Larraín’s “No,” starring Gael García Bernal, is one of those political films that aims to put us in the very eye of the action. It’s about the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that ended the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 15 years after he seized control of the government in a bloody coup. About a third of the film consists of actual documentary footage; the rest was shot with a U-matic video camera, popular at the time. The result is a bland, washed-out seamlessness. Real and staged footage are often indistinguishable.
This visual strategy makes sense aesthetically, but it’s tough on the eyes – like watching a feature-length, hand-held home movie. What binds the film together, despite this imperfection and many others, is the central idea: Larraín contends, at least for dramatic purposes, that the anti-Pinochet plebiscite was won because of the marketing savvy of Bernal’s René Saavedra, an ad executive, recently returned from exile in Mexico, who is hired to produce TV commercials for the NO faction. (He is apparently a composite of several actual people.)
The 15-minute nightly spots, a concession by the Pinochet regime under international pressure, are aired in the wee hours but nevertheless have a huge popular impact. Fighting resistance from hard-left forces who want him to show images of torture and brutality, Saavedra, whose previous ad triumph was selling soda, creates a sunny campaign featuring a rainbow logo and the slogan “Chile, happiness is on the way.”
Saavedra’s father was a prominent Chilean dissident exiled by Pinochet; his disapproving ex-wife (Antonia Zegers) is a left-wing activist with whom he shares custody of their young son (Pascal Montero). He is coaxed into taking on the NO campaign by an old Socialist friend of his father’s (Luis Gnecco). And yet we are never led to believe that Saavedra is anything but a whiz kid ad man – a Chilean Don Draper. He’s a salesman, not a political firebrand.
Larraín, whose two previous films about Chile, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” span Pinochet’s reign, comes from a wealthy family. His senator father was also president of the main pro-Pinochet party.
This of course leads to speculation that “No,” loosely based on a play by Antonio Skármeta, who also wrote the novel upon which “Il Postino” is based, is the work of a man looking to make amends. Except that, for some of the real people involved, the movie is anything but progressive. Genaro Arriagada, the director of the NO campaign, recently told The New York Times, “The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentleman, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”
The controversy over the factual accuracy of historical drama is all the movie rage right now – “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln,” and “Argo” have all taken their lumps – and “No” can, I think, be fairly criticized on the same grounds. Larraín, same as Saavedra, and despite the film’s faux documentary approach, is painting a happy face on the proceedings. Conceptually the film is in conflict with itself: a tough-shelled puffball. Thanks to Bernal’s quicksilver performance, it nevertheless brings to the fore a quintessential conundrum: Is it possible to “sell” revolution to market democracy, in the same way we sell soap and soda? In Larraín’s terms, Saavedra may be a huckster but what resulted from his hucksterism was genuine reform.
This may be too sunny a surmise as well: Pinochet, after all, even after the NOs captured 55 percent of the vote, remained commander of the armed forces until 1998. But the tone of uplift is earned. Larraín’s unarguable point is that, in politics, if we wait for good to issue only from the pure in heart, we will be waiting a very long time. Grade: B (Rated R for language.)